From Parsha to Halakha: Yitro – You shall not covet – Is wanting prohibited?
A microcosm of the Torah
The Ten Commandments are often understood to be a microcosm of all the mitzvot. “I am the Eternal, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt” teaches us those commandments that stem from reverence of God, as well as the social obligations based on the exodus from Egypt. “You shall not have other gods” includes the various prohibitions against foreign worship, while the injunction against taking God’s name in vain is related to both the appropriate attitude towards the name of God and regulations concerning vows and oaths. Shabbat is the foundation of the laws related to the sanctity of time.
Interpersonal laws such as our obligations towards our parents and other authority figures can be derived from “Honor your father and mother,” whereas mitzvot related to people’s physical bodies and possessions can be derived from “You shall not kill,” and “You shall not steal,” respectively. The injunction against adultery is the basis of similar sexually prohibited relationships, and the legal system stems from “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow.”
It’s tempting to say that “lo takhmod,” “you shall not covet,” is connected to the realm of “midot,” character traits, teaching us to work on our thoughts and feelings as well as our actions. The plain meaning of the text seems to demand self-restraint and an understanding that not everything belongs to me, nor should it; but Chazal’s (the Talmudic sages) halakhic explanation of the verse indicates that just thinking such things is not prohibited.
The commandment to honor our parents has a similar disparity between the plain meaning of the text and the halakhic obligations. While the plain meaning seems to demand feelings or an attitude, Chazal mandate specific, concrete actions that convey our respect and care for our parents.
What is the prohibition of “You shall not covet?”
Chazal recognized that the root “kh-m-d,” which we translate as covet, is generally accompanied by the root “l-k-kh,” take. For example “You shall burn the idols of their gods with fire, do not covet their silver and gold and take it for yourself, lest you be ensnared by them…” And in Yehoshua, when Akhan describes taking from the forbidden spoils of Yericho, he states: “I saw a fine Shinar mantle in the loot… and I coveted them and I took them…” The prophet Micha also describes coveting as the impetus for actions: “Alas, those who plot wickedness and make evil [lying] in their beds, in the light of morning they will do it because they have power in their hands. And they covet fields and steal them, houses and they take them away…”
The Sages deduced that the injunction against coveting is directly related to problematic taking. The midrash on Devarim teaches: “‘You shall not covet the wife of another’ even if it’s just coveting? The Torah says, ‘You shall not covet silver and gold and take for yourself,’ just as the latter is [not prohibited] unless one performs an action, so too [the former] is only when one performs an action.” Accordingly, it seems that coveting is only prohibited if one acts on their feelings – and takes what they desire.
It’s clear that Chazal do not consider covetous thoughts alone to be a sin; coveting is only prohibited when one takes action to fulfill their heart’s desire. This second step, the action Chazal consider problematic, is unclear. The ambiguity can be seen in the gemara’s discussion of a shomer – a guardian entrusted to look after an object – who is suspected of keeping the entrusted item for themselves. In some cases Chazal demand that a shomer must vow the object is no longer in their possession and then pay the owner the value of the item.
The gemara questions why we trust this shomer’s vow when we suspect them of other sinful behavior – violating the prohibition of “lo takhmod” and taking the object. The gemara answers that people think “lo takhmod” only applies to situations where they don’t pay for the object. Seemingly, if a shomer plans to pay for the item they keep for themselves, they don’t perceive it as a violation of “lo takhmod.”
Coveting that leads to stealing or coveting that leads to problematic behavior?
In the gemara it’s unclear if those who think “lo takhmod” only applies to instances when they do not pay for the object are correct or mistaken. Both positions appear in the Rishonim.
One possibility is that “lo takhmod” is akin to stealing – taking something that does not belong to you for yourself, whether you don’t pay for it or you do, but the original owner had no interest in selling and accepted remuneration against their will. Either way, someone who takes an item from someone else against their will and without their consent has violated the prohibition of stealing, whether or not they end up compensating the original owner. According to these Rishonim, this person has also violated “lo takhmod.”
The second possibility is that this gemara references a common misconception that “lo takhmod” only applies if the person takes something against another’s will. In actuality, “lo tachmod” is not limited to certain types of stealing, but may also apply to cases where the original owner accepts payment. When someone desires an item that belongs to someone else and petitions the owner to sell it to them – they violate “lo takhmod.” Even if the owners relent and sell the item somewhat willingly, just coveting something that belongs to another and working to make it one’s own is a violation of “lo takhmod.”
When we first looked at the verse it seemed that just thinking of owning something that belongs to someone else is the problem, and while this may still be a problematic attribute (as it seems from the plain meaning of the text), halakhically it does not appear to be a sin. But the relief of understanding that our difficulty to control feelings is not prohibited, may be short-lived. The actual prohibition may be an action that we never considered problematic – using legal means to persuade the owner to sell or give us the item. Practically speaking, pressuring or pleading with someone to sell their car, home, clothing, or the like may transgress “lo takhmod.”
The problem seems to be in the transition from thought to action – trying to acquire the object of one’s desire when it currently belongs to someone else. This understanding of “lo takhmod” may cause us to reevaluate many interactions – interpersonal relationships and business dealings. It sheds new light on the entire realm of commerce (outside of stores, markets, and sales).
Yes, coveting could lead to stealing, but there’s also a problem if it leads to something most people don’t see as all that problematic – a transaction the seller does not willingly initiate, but acquiesces to after they are pressured or nagged, and ultimately convinced.
Whether the prohibition against coveting is limited to a desire that leads to stealing or also applies to occasions when a person pressures another to part with their possessions in an ultimately “legal” transaction, the halakhic parameters are a sharp departure from most people’s understanding of “lo takhmod.” Based on this understanding, “lo takhmod” is not the paradigm of avodat hamidot (character development); it seems to represent another type of mitzvah – distancing oneself from transgressions. The Torah doesn’t only prohibit the problematic behavior, but also the considerations and planning leading up to the action.
 Devarim 7:25
 Yehoshua 7:21
 Mikha 2:1-2
The verse “When I dispossess the peoples before you and I broaden your borders, no person will covet your land when you go up to appear before the Eternal your God three times a year” (Shemot 34:24) mentions coveting without taking. But the meaning is clearly that none of their enemies will come to take the land when the people go up for the pilgrimage festivals.
Ironically, even when the meaning of the root “kh-m-d” is slightly different, the root appears alongside “l-k-kh”: “To protect you from a woman of evil, the smooth tongue of a foreign woman. Do not desire[kh-m-d] her beauty in your heart and do not let her [fluttering] eyelids take you in (l-k-kh).”(Mishlei 6:24) In this verse it is the woman who takes in the covetous man, while in other verses it is the man who takes the woman.
 Devarim 7:25
 The gemara continues to prove that someone who is suspected of sinning with money is not necessarily suspected of sinning with oaths. (ibid b)
 Bava Metzia 5b
 See Tosafot Sanhedrin 25b “meikara savur” for both options. In Bava Metzia 5b “b’lo damei” it seems Tosafot take the position that “lo takhmod” overlaps the prohibition of stealing.
 See Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Lo Ta’aseh 158. Also see Hasagot Ra’avad on Rambam Hilkhot Gezeila v’Aveida 1:9 and Magid Mishna.
Ra’avad maintains the prohibition is when they pay for the item but the original owner didn’t want to sell, and it’s possible that his position is no different from that of Tosafot. (For example, see Rabbi Yisrael Friedman “Gidrei Issur Lo Takhmod” Kovetz Ohr Yisrael, Monsey, Part 41, pg. 190, who differentiates between the two explanations).
 This raises the interesting possibility that a person is not suspected of transgressing if they do not think they’re sinning. Since people think that “lo takhmod” only applies to situations where you don’t pay for the item, then even if they violate this prohibition they are not suspected of other transgressions (like vows or testimony – see Sanhedrin 25b), because in their mind they aren’t sinning.
 According to Rambam, Hilkhot Gezeila v’Aveida 1:9-12. This is the ruling in Shulkhan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 359:10.
 According to this explanation, the prohibition of “lo takhmod eshet rai’ekha” applies to someone who persuades another to divorce his wife so that he can marry her. See Sefer Me’irat Einayim 359:19.
 Examples of situations discussed in Rishonim and Acharonim under the category of “lo takhmod” are people who petition another to get a gift (Sha’arei Teshuva Sha’ar III), someone who gets married to receive a large dowry (Shmirat HaLashon II pg 250). Even Yisrael 8:150 discusses if asking someone for their kidney violates “lo takhmod.”